Summer 1997

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He Heard the Lonesome Drum

Carl Lamson Carmer


David Minor

from EB Odds & Ends, a Newsletter of Eagles Byte Historic Research

Now, I'm not saying that you can walk into any used book store in any part of the world and find it. There may even be some shops in the U. S. that don't have it in stock. But I'd be surprised if a good many didn't have it somewhere on their shelves. I've come across it in New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans.

I've never seen one with a dust jacket. The bare book is dark blue, with a black title band across the spine, near the top. Above the band, in gold script: The Rivers of America. Then the title, on the band: The Hudson. The author: Carl Carmer.

Carmer did not write the first book in the River series, but he seems to have written the most ubiquitous. (The bookstore in New Orleans that carried it did not carry the Mississippi volume.) Neither was he the first to introduce the American people to themselves. But it would be hard to discuss the portrayal of those people without discussing him.

I don't know if our Carl Carmer is related to the Carl Carmer who was hauled into court in Beverwyck, New York, in 1652, along with his wife, for selling pretzels to the Indians. I'll leave that puzzle to the genealogists. But it would be fitting, somehow. (The problem, by the way, was that the "heathen were eating flour while the Christians were eating bran.")

Whether a descendant or not, Carl Lamson Carmer was born on October 16, 1893, in upstate New York. His father, Willis Griswold Carmer, principal of Dansville High School, was not with his pregnant wife Mary Lamson Carmer when she went to visit her father's farm at Dryden. As Carl later wrote, "A good team of horses got them both into Cortland in time for me to be born in the hospital there."

When he was five his father became principal of Albion High School in the western part of the state and Carl Carmer left the Finger Lakes. He would be back.

Carl graduated from the high school in Albion in 1910 and entered his father's alma mater, Hamilton College. Graduating, he was off to Harvard for his Masters degree in English Literature, then on to a position at Syracuse University where he taught writing to freshmen. It was while he was spending a year teaching at the University of Rochester that he was drafted. A series of jobs in the military followed—drill sergeant, sergeant-clerk in the Division Judge Advocate's office, teaching in the School of Fire at Fort Sills, Oklahoma. Then he was out—going back to teach at Hamilton, then once again to the University of Rochester, where he eventually became a full professor.

Carmer now wanted to write and in 1927, when he accepted a teaching job at the University of Alabama, it's likely that a chance to become a columnist for the New Orleans Morning Tribune provided much of the allure. Upon his arrival in Tuscaloosa, a colleague, aware of the dismal state of Alabama race relations, warned him, " … if I knew you well enough to advise you, I'd say 'For God's sake, get out of here before it's too late.'" It would be another six years before Carmer would follow his advice.

Meanwhile he began exploring his adopted state, traveling around the Cajun Country, the Red Hills, the Black Belt, the Conjure Country. He learned of a slave legend telling of a night when a shower of stars was seen over the region, and saw for himself, "Moons, red with the dust of barren hills…festering swamps, restless yellow rivers…enchantment—an emanation of malevolence that threatens to destroy men through dark ways of its own." He also talked and listened to ordinary people and wrote down what they told him. In his introduction to The Hudson he referred to his book as, "… more about tenants than landlords, more about privates than generals, more about workers than employers." While visiting a white family in the countryside he became aware that an argument in town over a faulty record player had led to the shooting of a white man by a black man and an ensuing lynching. He soon learned that the violence had grown and resulted in the murder of innocent blacks. His hosts, while disapproving of the killings, tried to distract him by asking him to tell them about New York City. When someone asked if the governor could do anything they were told, "He was elected by the Klan." The next day Carmer attended the black church with his hosts, as a memorial service for the dead blacks was conducted.

But he also recorded the lighter facets of Alabama folk life—listing fiddler's tunes, quilt patterns, Sacred Harp singing and the superstitions of whites and blacks. The researchers of the WPA would soon pick up where he left off. He even self-published French Town, a volume of verse.

He returned north, moving to New York City. At this time he married the New Orleans artist Elizabeth Black (who would work with him on a number of projects), became an assistant editor at Vanity Fair, and turned the six-year southern experience into his first regional book, Stars Fell on Alabama, published in 1934. New York Times critic R. L. Duffus praised the book and Carmer's gift of "extracting from what he sees, hears and feels an essence which is fundamentally poetic."

Using New York City as a base, as he did with Tuscaloosa, Carmer began returning to the upstate New York region where he was born, and rediscovered a region as varied, myth-crazed and lore-haunted as the deepest heart of the Conjure Country.

The people didn't talk of meteor showers. They talked of the winds that "bring with them…a sound that is not a voice…It is the beat of a drum. The roar of cities overwhelms it but there are a few upstate farmers who have not heard at some time or other that faraway tattoo." Some referred to a British soldier walking to the scaffold as the drums echoed his steps. Others talked of a crazed youth beating a drum on a hilltop. Still others of drums beneath Cayuga Lake. Seneca Chief Jesse Cornplanter told Carmer they were "the death drums of my people." The stories became Carmer's next volume of Americana, Listen for a Lonesome Drum.

Carmer took still more stories of his state—the Chenango People, the Loomis Gang, the Cardiff Giant, the Murderous Philologist—and turned them into a 1949 sequel, Dark Trees to the Wind. It was between these two books that he was summoned along with other authors, to the Manhattan offices of Farrar and Rinehart. Editor Constance Lindsay Skinner, enthusiastic amateur ethnologist of the American Indian, announced to the assembled authors that the publishing house was planning a series of books to be called Rivers of America. They especially wished to have the volumes written by poets. Pulitzer Prize poet Robert P. Tristam Coffin was given the Kennebec; Carmer was offered the Hudson. He accepted the assignment and plunged into research, traveling up and down the river's valley, talking to its inhabitants, the tenants, privates and workers. He also visited the history repositories, following leads to nearly-forgotten episodes.

While attempting to pin down a story of Westchester farmers defying British troops ten years before the Revolution he visited archives in the state capital at Albany. He was told that records were no longer available, destroyed in a 1911 fire. He hung around until one of the staff, wishing to get rid of this pest, dug out the manuscript remains. The two of them discovered that the borders of the material were burnt badly but that their author had left very wide margins for adding notes and that the centers of the pages remained untouched. Carmer had reincarnated the Minutes of the Secretary of the Committee for the City of New York, 1766, and treed his quarry.

The initial books and the series were a success. When Constance Skinner died she was succeeded as series editor by poet Stephen Vincent Benet, Anthony Adverse author Hervey Allen, and then Carmer himself. He wrote another volume, on the Susquehanna. Eventually over forty rivers would be covered in nearly fifty volumes. The books spawned imitators, and used book stores today still carry volumes of The Lakes of America, The Trails of America, and The Regions of America, not to mention the Foxfire books and their descendants.

In 1964 Carmer edited The Tavern Lamps Are Burning: Literary Journeys through Six Regions and Four Centuries of New York State. The announced goal of his compendium was to be "a blast from the literary shotgun…the peppered reader will be convinced that there is an over-all one of a kind nonesuchness that separates upstate from the rest of the world. " His literary shotgun shells ranged from Henry Hudson's first officer Robert Jouet, through Edith Wharton, Phyllis McGinley, Francis Parkman, Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling.

During all of this work Carmer also turned out children's collections, verse dialogues and a folklore radio series—Your Neck o' the Woods. He gathered the material for Folk Songs of the Rivers of America, worked with science fiction author Lester del Ray and Cecile Matschat on an anthology, and interviewed FDR about the president's scottie Fala for a book about White House pets. He even became a Hollywood studio advisor, as folklore consultant for Disney's Melody Time animated feature.

Not only did Carl Carmer immerse himself in history, he also lived in it, buying one of Orson Fowler's experimental 19th-century octagonal houses in Irvington-on-Hudson. It was in this house that the environmental organization Scenic Hudson was organized to help fight a Consolidated Edison water storage site on top of Storm King Mountain. Up until his death in 1976, Carmer continued not only to chronicle the state, region, country, people and rivers of his America, but to preserve something of them for us, off the page as well as on it.

© 1997, David Minor
Reprinted by permission from EB Odds & Ends, A Newsletter of Eagles Byte
Historic Research, February 1997, No. 17

Selected Bibliography

Some of Carmer's books:

America Sings, ed. (New York, Knopf, 1942)

Dark Trees to the Wind (New York William Sloane Associates, 1949)

The Farm Boy and the Angel: The Mormon Vision and the Winning of the West (New York, Doubleday, 1970)

French Town (New Orleans, Quarter's Book Shop, c. 1928)

Genesee Fever (New York, Farrar, 1941, novel)

Hurricane Luck (New York, Aladdin, 1949, juvenile)

The Jesse James of the Java Sea (New York, Farrar & Rinehart, 1945)

Listen for a Lonesome Drum (New York, William Sloane Associates, 1936 / 1950)

The Hudson (New York, Farrar & Rinehart, 1939)

Stars Fell on Alabama (New York, Doubleday, 1934 / 1952)

The Susquehanna (New York, Rinehart & Company, 1955)

The Tavern Lamps Are Burning (New York, David McKay Company, 1964)

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